The term “Made in China” is one that is very fascinating — it strikes heated conversations. The Royal Ontario Museum is currently hosting a thought-provoking exhibition that takes a historical look at what this term really means. Made in China: Cultural Encounters Through Export Art features nearly 100 objects including paintings, porcelain, lacquer, silver and photography that will be displayed in rotation. The focus on this exhibition is on examples of pieces that were created in the 18th and 19th centuries for enthusiastic European and North American consumers. “Made in China” trademark is placed in a historical context here as the exhibition explores the cultural encounters between China and the West. What it reveals is an incredibly rich history of the export trade that is focused on the port city of Canton, now known and Guanzhou.
The exhibition reflects the influences of both Chinese traditional art yet with Western ideas at the time. Like many products manufactured in China today, the works created centuries ago served as decorative art and souvenirs for foreigners.
Pith paper paintings are highlighted in this exhibition – a complex art form made from trees of the ginseng family that were only found in the southern parts of China — Canton and Taiwan areas at that time. The pith paper was precisely and carefully sliced into thin sheets. Known for its strength, the paper absorbs watercolours and tempera paints easily with incredible results in detail and depth. Pith paper paintings were once in high demand when foreign collectors were fascinated by the elegance and beauty of asian art and the Chinese artists, in turn, would feed their hunger enthusiastically romanticizing Chinese customs, landscapes, daily life and exotic plants — all to serve their interests and to evoke fantasized images of China for Westerners. Dr. Wen-chien Cheng, the ROM’s Louise Hawley Stone Chair of Far Eastern Art and curatorial supervisor, tells us that this style of painting on pith paper lasted only for 100 years and a true art form. “It took one artisan 2 years to learn the skill how to peel this paper alone,” says Dr. Cheng. “Even now in Taiwan, they are trying to find older people to ask them if they know the art so they can make documentaries because it’s such a great form of art in itself.” Rarely publicly displayed, these paintings are among the hidden treasures of the ROM’s Far Eastern vaults and are extremely fragile so the ROM curatorial staff have been rotating pieces in this exhibition and they are definitely worth seeing.
Dr. Cheng also explains that at the time, the export arts from China were very much made-to-order and Chinese artists even with porcelain. An example shown here is the subtle western influence in using rosy pink colours that were popular with European and American customers. With that influence it also then in turn became very popular with the Imperial Courts in China. It was a foreign colour introduced to China that was blended with the artistic input of Chinese artisans that made this exchange of cultures a perfect example of the exhibition.
There are many fascinating pieces in this exhibit that are worth taking some time to become familiar with. The works are elegant and historical and offer a deeper understanding and appreciation to what ‘Made in China’ really means.
“The term ‘Made in China’ resonates with a lot of people. It’s a very powerful statement and almost a global phenomenon but in this period in time you have to imagine not the context we know it as right now but the communication between the cultures. This is where you really see the true encounter of east and west. We don’t want people to think this is a one-sided story,” says Dr. Cheng.
The Royal Ontario Museum’s Made In China: Cultural Encounters Through Export Art is on now until August 2016 and is included with general Museum admission. To enhance the exhibition experience, visitors are encouraged to sto pinto nearby galleries devoted to Chinese art, sculpture, architecture and temple art.